Announcement!

The fabulous Robin Jacks and I have started a new pop culture blog.  It is called The Mystery Diary. I will primarily be blogging there for the foreseeable future. I’m really excited about this, and expect new posts to go up much more frequently than they have here.  Check it out, and please adjust bookmarks, readers, subscriptions, etc.

 

Stuff may go up here occasionally, maybe videos and stuff.  But most of my pop culture critique-y stuff will be over there.

Jean Grae – Cookies or Comas Mixtape

It’s hard to believe it’s only been three years since Jeanius, Jean Grae’s last official album, was finally, finally released. We got to legitimately listen to the still-exciting “Intro” (some of us may have been listening to illegitimate leaked copies for awhile…) on which she raps “Jean, change your flow/No”. Now we have have Cookies or Comas, Grae’s DJ Drama-hosted mixtape, released in anticipation of this coming fall’s proper LP, Cake or Death. I have often thought of the Jeanius line while listening over the past few days, because on Cookies Grae changes up her flow on virtually every track.  It’s an impressive show of versatility, to say the least.  A great rapper for a very long time, on Cookies Grae sounds noticeably greater, jaw-droppingly great. Her always-fantastic lyrics have never been denser, sharper, or more hilarious, but her rapping itself sounds astoundingly effortless as she bobs and weaves through complex internal rhymes and tongue twisters. Her delivery is cool yet animated, and incredibly entertaining. She’s sometimes confrontational, sometimes goofy, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes all three at once, like on her freestyle over Kanye’s “Blame Game” beat on which she raps “I’m facing this February with less morals, Less normal, more Nellie Oleson, less Laura, Had it with explorations, less Dora” while vividly depicting the deterioration of a relationship. Yet Grae can just as easily tell cathartic tales of creative violence that leave promising (if  over-hyped and under-baked) children like Tyler the Creator far back in the dust of their own retreading, or contribute a breezy alphabet rap that’s equally concerned with history and blasphemy.  It’s not hyperbole to say that one can easily imagine Grae going toe to toe with Jay or Em or [insert your favorite rapper] and wiping the floor with them.

Grae hasn’t exactly set the bar low for herself on Cookies of Comas, what with appearances by Pharoahe Monch, Royce Da 5’9″, and frequent trader-of-guest-spots Talib Kweli. To say Grae holds her own with these highly respected rappers is an understatement. They all provide memorable verses, but this is the Jean Grae show, no mistake. Her personality and vision bring remarkable cohesion to Cookies, which hangs together better than most proper albums, despite a wider range of subject matter and tone than most rappers cover in their entire careers. Cookies is a thrilling rollercoaster ride, hurtling from song to song with controlled urgency. It’s a lot like Coney Island’s Cyclone actually: tossing riders around, leaving them bruised, confused, and possibly whiplashed, yet despite all warning signs never running off the tracks. With the possible exception of PJ Harvey’s eviscerating maybe-masterpiece Let England Shake, it is also the best album I’ve heard this year. And it’s a fucking mixtape. God knows what we’re in for with Cake or Death.

It is tempting to give over the rest of this post to quoting some of my many, many favorite lyrics, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun. Suffice to say that my first listen through Cookies was my giddiest experience in recent memory, and genius hilarity piled on top of stabbing insight on top of joyous juxtaposition of syllables and concepts. I’d rather play you the mixtape and gesticulate like a moron than try to explain much more (yet) about why it’s so great. It’s obvious why it’s so great, just listen to it. You can! For FREE! No, really, legally, it’s supposed to be free, not in a property-is-theft way, in a Jean-wanted-it-that-way way. Right here!

After you download and listen to Cookies, you can go geek out over the lyrics over at Rap Genius, where they (with Jean’s explicit blessing and occasional awesome notes) have been annotating the album. I may have contributed a note or two or tens. What? You can do it too! In fact, please do.

Michael & Me (scapegoat yr idols)

Note: This is an old post from my old, now-defunct blog, written shortly after Michael Jackson died. Rerunning it in his honor and memory on this, the second anniversary of his death.

***

The day after Michael Jackson died I found myself waiting for hours and hours in the Secaucus NJ train station. There were mishaps going into the Catskills to see my grandparents. Amongst the time-killing activities of buying corn nuts, searching for soy milk and searching for Wifi, I read a piece in New York magazine about the Chew-Holdens; some hippie family in Prospect Heights who bought a brownstone and grows gardens and shops at the co-op and all sleep in the same bed. “Co-sleeping”, it’s called? I’d heard about parents and babies “co-sleeping” together, and I’ve obviously heard of various different family members sharing beds because of space and/or financial constrictions. I’d never heard of a park Slope co-op family choosing to push a twin against a king size mattress to make one enormous bed for the parents and two (six and ten year old) girls to “co-sleep” in together because it’s, like, wholesome and qualite´*. “If [husband] and I ever need privacy,” the mother explained “there are plenty of other places in the house.”

To be blunt (and probably bigoted) I have a lot of problems with this idea of “co-sleeping” with children that old, at least when it’s Park Slope hippies deciding to do it. It sounds like a nightmare of horrible boundaries and lack of privacy to me, for everyone involved. Are the parents freaks who want to make sure their kids don’t masturbate or something? Seriously. Do they really like having their kids in bed with them every night? Despite the fact that there are like one million rooms in the brownstone that could easily be different bedrooms? Why? Is their sex life that uncompelling?

I don’t think the Chew-Holdens are going to be tarred and feathered, and I don’t think they should be. I don’t think they should be investigated for possible child abuse based on their choice of sleeping arrangement, however much it grosses me out. But one big happy “family bed” when there are so many other options so readily available does raise a red flag, automatically. The possibility of sexual abuse does flash in my mind.

Over the weekend I watched a lot of coverage on Michael Jackson’s death, on both the news and music networks.

My sister and partner and I talked about how important Michael was and is, at least to anyone who cares about music, pop culture, or racial politics. His role in popular music can not be overstated. He was at the absolute top of his field in so many areas— a great, great singer, dancer, writer, music video visionary…we couldn’t think of anyone who was that amazing in that many different fields. Watching the video network specials really reminded me of how fucking good so much of his work was. I remembered how I felt when I was five and got Thriller. How much I loved–with my heartLOVED –that music, how I stared at the photo of him in the gatefold with the tiger cub and fell in love, how beautiful he was. How the hooks dug in and wouldn’t let go. How Billie Jean used to always give me chills. My 80s trinity was Michael, Cyndi, Madonna, but Michael was the first. First vinyl I ever owned. I remember when my dad brought it home for me and my older sister, and my mom put contact paper on a big piece of cardboard for us to “breakdance” on while we listened to it.

I stopped following Michael Jackson news after awhile. I didn’t buy any of his music post-Bad, though I enjoyed a lot of his videos and singles. I loved the “Scream” video. When it came out in the mid-90s I knew someday it would look dated, but couldn’t imagine it, it seemed so NEW. I have to admit, I still kind of like Michael and Janets’ wardrobes. Shiny vinyl pants with those black shirts with the…ridges? All over? I still kinda think that’s a hot look.

I was an alternateen then, so Michael was no longer a staple. I avoided most media coverage in those later years, which all seemed to come from the “what a freak” angle. I didn’t want to read that. I didn’t want to hear lurid speculation or offensive jokes or revel in diagnosing the man. I didn’t care that he dangled his baby out the window. Yeah, bad move, but why the obsessing? Based on the infamous Living with Michael Jackson interviews that I saw for the first time on MSNBC this weekend, it seems like he was in a bad way in those days. It was very sad. He seemed in ill health, and was not handling whatever Valley of the Dolls uppers/downers combination he was on very well; though for all I know, he wasn’t on any drugs and was having some other kind of issue that was making him act doped up then manic and twitchy and shaking. It’s possible, the fuck do I know other than that he really did not seem okay, and it made me really sad to see.

The thing that makes me saddest about Michel Jackson’s death is, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that he never seemed to find any peace, he never seemed to have healed.

I saw Deepak Chopra on Larry King, talking about his friendship with Michael. He said that once upon a time Michael called him up, wanting to learn how to meditate. Deepak went to Neverland one weekend and they became friends. Eventually, Micahael asked him for a prescription for Oxycontin (if you’re like me and didn’t know, that’s Dr. Deepak Md to you,) which Chopra refused. He didn’t give much detail, but said Michael was abusing prescription pills, which he got through crappy Hollywood doctors who get their kicks (and ka$h) enabling celebrities with drug problems. He rightly pointed out that more people are dangerously addicted to prescription drugs than illegal drugs (and yet—no drug war on the pharmaceutical companies!)

Anyway. Deepak Chopra also said his kids spent time with Jackson, had traveled with him, and that he felt completely comfortable leaving his kids with Jackson unsupervised.

I’m told that one of the big scandalous revelations in this interview was that MJ admitted to having sleepovers with kids, including sometimes sleeping in the same bed with them. He didn’t apologize for it, and lashed out at those who found such behavior problematic, for turning something loving and innocent into horror.

Now. People talk about juggling your appreciation for Jackson’s music with your reservations about his personal life. I don’t give a fuck how “weird” he is. When I was young and watched the Muppets, I most identified with Gonzo–the “weirdo”. I think I identified a bit with the MJ under tabloid attack–why are we supposed to condemn him, exactly, even if he did sleep in an oxygen chamber and try to buy the elephant man’s bones? Fuck, if I were Michael Jackson I’d probably want the Elephant Man’s bones too, if they’re not buried, if they’re being gawked at in some exhibit somewhere. The plastic surgery makes me sad, makes me angry at white supremacy, but it doesn’t make me hate him–who the fuck am I, as some white girl, to hate on or ridicule him for that?

The only thing that really makes me uncomfortable being a fan is the possibility that he molested kids. That’s fucking horrible. I’m not going to defend the behavior of a fucking child molester.

Some people seem to accept that Michael Jackson was a child molester. Why?

I can empathize with the visceral horror one feels when it seems like sexual abuse of any kind is being swept under the rug, that victims are slandered while perpetrators walk away. I understand if someone can’t deal with Michael Jackson because of the abuse allegations. But most mentions of it seem to lump it together with his plastic surgery, just another freaky scandal, another handful of mud to throw.

My basic, political, position is that I believe people when they say they have been abused. If a kid says they were molested, they were molested. But. Shit happens. There are situations where parents decide a kid was molested for purposes of getting money, and/or some other whacked-out reason. Maybe Michael Jackson was a child molester, but at least as plausible to me is that some greedy or disgruntled parents decided to call Michael Jackson a child molester. I didn’t follow either molestation scandal much, I found them upsetting. Based on my limited knowledge of both cases, after reading up a little now to try to better understand, I don’t really have any reason to believe that he’s guilty, and tell me if you’re more educated than I am and feel differently.

The sleepover admission was apparently near-tantamount to an admission of criminal guilt in the public imagination. I don’t think Michael’s sleepovers make him any more guilty of child abuse than the co-sleeping habits of the Chew-Holdens do. I see both as potentially problematic, but neither as necessarily sexual. Yet “he got away with it” is an accepted sentiment in many circles.

Why is Michael Jackson a pervert and the Chew-Holdens qualite? Well, the Chew-Holdens are wholesome white liberals in park slope. Amongst their peers, they are probably admired or jealously scorned out of insecurity, hated with the kind of misplaced anxious energy that often manifests in peer-pressured CSA memberships where the vegetables never get eaten and the parents feel resentful of their produce burden. If fellow liberals took issue with the co-sleeping, it’d likely be out of a fear of their own inferior, less dedicated parenting.

Michael Jackson wasn’t a qualite white liberal, he was a Black man whose presentation stirred race and gender panic. His ambiguity triggered anger, bigotry, hatred. The way he talked, moved, transformed physically, pushed buttons and freaked people out, especially, if the post-death fallout is any indication, white men who felt threatened. He couldn’t be easily boxed into race/gender/sexuality categories except for the all-encompassing “freak”, within which all is possible except recognition of humanity.

The racism in the “he got away with it!” vitriol is hard to deny. There’s a special place in pop cultural hell for black men accused of harming whites. An obvious point of comparison to Michael’s not guilty verdict is OJ Simpson’s–white America is still not over that miscarriage of justice despite the many many more wrongful convictions and acquittals that have piled up (and could be organized around) since. If we want to stick with The Fame, before the recent turn-about Phil Spector had a long time as a legally not-guilty man after murdering his wife. I don’t recall the same critical mass of (white) outrage.

There’s another reason the Chew-Holdens are role models and Michael’s sick. My partner said, “Well, I guess if it’s an adult that’s not in the family, people find it more suspect”. But WHY? A child is far more likely to be sexually abused by someone in their family than by Michael freakin’ Jackson. Isn’t that the unfortunate, less politician-friendly reality of child sexual abuse? Kids are usually abused by those closest to them, and often the abusers are respectable members of the community. Scandals involving such are meant to reaffirm the status quo misconception of sexual abuse—OMG, this respectable businessman raped his daughter! That’s a story because it’s seen as an exception. Our culture displaces this epidemic, which cuts across demographic lines and effects a horrifying number of people, onto pervs and trash and freaks. MJ was a freak par excellence.

The sleepovers are the smoking gun? It’s Michael Jackson, for god’s sake, who everyone knows had a traumatizing non-childhood and thus was obsessed with an idealized version of the state, with saving the children from what he needed saving from. He wanted physical affection rather than abuse, he wanted to feel loved and cared for, so he recreated this such relationships in his adult life. Many of us work through these dynamics in our romantic relationships, he didn’t seem to have that option. It’s unusual and eccentric, and, beyond that, it absolutely raises red flags. But: I can conceive of such strangeness without molestation. His sleepovers don’t make him guilty. And there’s something wrong with a media that congratulates the Chew-Holdens for being closeknit, loving, and GREEN, while blasting MJ as a sick freak. Especially as the Chew-Holdens all sleep together every night, not as some special occasional fun thing. The thought of sleeping in the same bed with my parents every night at age ten causes me to hyperventilate with privacy deprivation, instant panic attack!

Jackson is a scapegoat that allows us to ignore and misrepresent the reality of sexual abuse. It usually doesn’t involve satanic rituals or complicated “games” involving whole pre-schools of kids and adult accomplices, or fanciful sleepovers with the king of pop. The reality of most child sexual abuse is much more banal and quiet and private and devastating. I haven’t seen the MJ scandals raise public interest is stopping child abuse, developing resources for victims, figuring out how to viably treat perpetrators, changing our culture to build respect for children and listen to them…no, as is so tragically often the case in instances where child sexual abuse becomes part of a media spectacle, actually helping abused kids and preventing future abuse has nothing to do with the story. That story would be hegemony-threatening rather than reifying. It wouldn’t be a good old times Coney Island freakshow.

The fact that Michael was one of the artistic geniuses of my lifetime and one of the most commercially successful, and still got treated so disrespectfully saddens me greatly. The fact that anyone is complaining about all the coverage his death is getting angers me. Ok, yeah, I’m disgusted that the news networks were all MJ all the time all weekend, even as no new information came in, even as there was a whole rest of the world where things were happening that should be news, but this kind of news media spectacle isn’t new or unique. I’m a bit less offended by the constant coverage of the sudden-seeming and untimely death of one of the biggest public figures of our time than I am when it’s “breaking update: young white lady still missing”. He certainly earned the non-stop coverage on music or entertainment-oriented channels, and should have been a top story elsewhere as well. I don’t remember much outrage when the media obsessively re-chronicled all the details of Princess Diana’s death. She wasn’t even our Princess, whereas Michael was certainly our King.

Let’s remember why:

*Qualite (adj.)
Definition:
Of or pertaining to wholesome goodness with marked bourgeois connotations, inherently alienating to me, often w/ marked liberal connotations.

e.g.: Terra Blues, off-white, activists who are always happy, yoga pants, anything that could be described as tastefully messy, The Park Slope Food Co-Op, anyone in good standing at the Park Slope Food Co-Op, Angelica Kitchen, NOW, being anti-makeup, being anti-porn [i just realized this would make an incredible category in $25,000 pyramid!], muted colors, obsessive cleanliness, no worse yet – people who just smell like shampoo ALL THE TIME, people who academically/anthropologically “take an interest in” social movements though have no interest in taking part in them, etc. (from here.)

A post about Sara Quin’s post about Tyler the Creator

Well, thanks to Sara Quin’s blog post/open letter to the music industry, I’m finally listening to Tyler the Creator’s recently released and much-hyped Goblin. I’d been procrastinating for over a week, ever since a leaked copy found its way into my iTunes. I just wasn’t very excited to hear it. Fair to Tyler or not, the excess of hype–particularly among indie rock types who don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for any non-Odd Future emcees–turned me off. Also, I really haven’t felt like hearing some kid rap about raping women. It’s just this mood I’ve been in.

I’ve only listened to about a fourth of the album, so I’m not going to attempt an assessment of its merits, but I don’t think I actually need to plow through the whole thing (it’s long, Jesus) before writing a reaction to Quin’s post. I have to go to work in a couple hours, so in the interest of timeliness, I’m just going to go ahead and share. If you haven’t read Quin’s post, please go read that first.

First, I’m absolutely with Sara Quin so far as the necessity of critiquing the misogynist and homophobic content of Goblin. Like Quin, I am also disturbed by many critics’ and listeners’ thoroughly uncritical and enthusiastic reception of every smart ass lyric this kid spits. I am glad that she and other cultural critics are voicing alternate analyses. Based on the bit I’ve heard, I have mixed feeling about this record and Tyler’s strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter, lyricist, and rapper, but that’s really neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.

I am largely empathetic to Quin’s frustrations with Tyler’s uncritical popularity amongst people who fancy themselves progressives, despite his violent misogynistic lyrical fantasies and frequent use of homophobic slurs. I am glad that she is speaking out against the acceptance of misogyny and homophobia in the music industry. However, I am quite troubled by some of the theoretical devices she employs in order to do so.

Quin opens her post with a pair of questions:

When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offenses?

Whoa, there. Does Quin really believe racism is treated more seriously in the entertainment industry than homophobia and misogyny? Just, like, in general? I can’t even begin to fathom how one could viably make such as assessment of even the music industry as a whole (let alone the entire entertainment industry), as I see a whole lot of racism that isn’t taken very seriously. Just off the top of my head, upon reading these sentences, I immediately thought of cuddly indie duo Ching Chong Song, a white band who named themselves after a racist slur. While some of their shows have been met with protests organized by Asian-American student groups, who made it quite-clear to the band that their name was, if somewhat anachronistic, still plenty offensive. The band responded by calling their critics “stupid petty retards”, retaining their racist moniker, and going on about their career without further public incident. For a couple years now, I’ve been pretty dismayed by how unseriously this momentary controversy has been treated. But this anecdote doesn’t even scratch the surface of the systemic racism around which the US popular music industry has been built, from day one. The fact that Quin doesn’t see this as clearly or often as misogyny and homophobia doesn’t mean its not there. It’s often easier to recognize oppression that negatively affects us directly than that which doesn’t.

I also found it curious that Quin would stipulate that anti-semitism is verboten in the music industry, or at least taken seriously across the boards, in a piece attacking the acceptance of a rapper known for celebrating Hitler and calling himself a Nazi. Just sayin’.

I’m going to ramble a bit, but this is the takeaway: we do not have to compete in the Oppression Olympics in order to argue that misogyny and homophobia are unacceptable and must be taken seriously. What’s more we should not, if our goal is to combat oppression in general, not just the kinds that hurt us most personally. Doing so is actually counter productive, as it both needlessly divides people who could be allies (it divides many people right into little bits–I wonder how Quin would feel if asked to chose which is worse, homophobia or sexism) and obscures the intertwined, intersecting workings of oppression.

So I’m a little worried when I see people I follow on twitter eagerly spreading this link around as a tonic in the midst of Tyler-mania.

Quin goes on to write:


No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge.

Honestly, reading this, I asked myself the same question. While I definitely think Tyler and Odd Future’s pseudo-shocking misogynistic and homophobic (and pro-Nazi) content is worthy of discussion and critique, I also don’t find it particularly notable in a broader musical-historical context. Unless something that actually surprises me pops up later in the album, this is absolutely nothing new or unusual for pop music. It’s the same old same old, which is part of what’s so depressing about it. It’s notable this spring, at least on the Internet, for sure, but I actually can’t relate to Quin’s selective horror. Especially when her self-reflection leads her here:

Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.

Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Really? I’m not exactly sure what all Quin is trying to say here. Let’s take the first part first: “… in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message…” Whose race and class? Tyler’s? Is Quin explaining that she’s not suggesting Tyler is homophobic and misogynistic because he is black and comes from whatever class background he comes from? Why is she preemptively defending herself? I guess because race and class supposedly have “EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” Aside from the fact that Tyler has been admonished, so not everyone refuses to do it, this is also bit cryptic (again: whose race and class? And how exactly do race and class have “EVERYTHING” to do with Tyler’s presumed free pass?), but I think I know what Quin is getting at. Earlier in the post she explained:

…is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist..?

So I guess she believes that Tyler is gets a free pass on misogynistic and homophobic lyrics because he’s black? Since when is that how this works? Since when has being black given artists a universal force field of protection against being criticized for being misogynistic and homophobic, or anything else? Did Quin miss the congressional hearings on “gangsta rap” back in the ’90s? How about when congress did it again in 2007? I can believe that there may be a few misguided souls out there whose confusion about how to best be PC in this situation leads them into silence, despite being troubled by Tyler’s lyrical content, but just how widespread can this phenomenon be? How central is it to Tyler’s popularity with critics and audiences? I would guess its quite peripheral, if existent at all.

More insightful is the end of the quoted sentence above, which I truncated. In addition to being afraid of being called racist, Quin posits that people may withhold negative judgement of Tyler because:

…the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)

Well, sure. Everyone wants to be hip, tough, and on the winning team. But is it that critics and audiences are scared of being among the unhip masses of gay oldsters who don’t “get” Tyler, or is it that they actively enjoy the feeling of inclusion that comes from being on his side? You can be old and on his side, as many critics are, or gay and on his side, as plenty of gays (including Syd the Kid of Odd Future fame) are, you just have to tolerate his homophobia, misogyny, and adolescent self-absorption. I understand that wanting to be cool and being scared of being uncool may be two sides of the same coin, but I find it strange that Quin repeatedly focuses on the fear. I think people who like Tyler’s music largely do so because they actively enjoy Tyler’s music, not primarily because they’re scared to say otherwise.

Which leads to another question I have about this aspect of Quin’s thesis: Since when does the music industry need the fear of being called racist in order to fail to stand up against misogyny and homophobia? Maybe people aren’t giving Tyler a pass because he’s black, but because we live in a homophobic patriarchy. I can’t help but think of Julian Assange here, how quickly so many righteous defenders of Wikileaks (notably including famous career feminist Naomi Wolf) turned into rape apologists when an ugly portrait of their hero’s sexual politics began to emerge. Those on the left who refused to toe the Lying Sluts line were raked over the coals. Scratch a progressive, and you’re frighteningly likely to find misogynist.

Or, to bring it back squarely into the music industry, look at famously white rapper and best selling recording artist of the aughts, Eminem. Almost exactly two years before the release of Goblin, Mr. Mather’s released his really crappy comeback album, Relapse. Its general crappiness (and it was really crappy, I mean, even Eminem himself admitted as much on his follow up, Recovery) was partly due to its boring, repetitive, stupid lyrics that frequently described graphic fantasies of stalking, raping, and murdering women. Over and over again. Including real women who actually exist in the real world who Eminem mentions by name. It is a truly juvenile and vile piece of work, sprinkled with plenty of homophobia as well, which is made all the more appalling by the fact that Eminem isn’t a kid toying with shock value tactics he’s too young to know are already played out, he’s an adult who played out these themes himself on superior albums at the beginning of his career. While Tyler is still a kid playing Johnny Rotten, Eminem is one of the biggest stars on the planet, an archetype unto himself, and twice Tyler’s age.

So how did critics and audiences react to Relapse? They ate it up. It was one of the biggest records of the year, selling many many many times over what Goblin ever will. Rolling Stone gave it 4 stars. The generally more scrupulous Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. It was nominated for three Grammys and won two–GRAMMYS, people. You know, the awards given out by the old, respectable, out-of-it fogeys of the RIAA? They lapped it up. They gave rap album of the year to a collection of songs celebrating jerking off to Hannah Montana, raping and murdering Britney Spears, and making fun of Samantha Ronson for being an ugly lesbian.

I was utterly dismayed by this reaction, as someone who enjoys a lot of Eminem’s music and respects his talent, despite his often very problematic lyrical content, I knew the album blew, even though I’d hoped it would be good. Yet all these fans and critics were too invested in the myth that it was the great comeback the world had been waiting for to see that it wasn’t, let alone criticize it for being one of the most over the top pieces of misogynist music to ever hit the Billboard charts. It seemed that these gross retreads didn’t bother anyone else as much as they bothered me, it seemed like they didn’t bother anyone at all. I’ve actually come across a lot more critical discussion of Tyler for promoting homophobia and misogyny around the release of Goblin than of Relapse-era Em (Marshall Mathers LP-era Em is another matter. The Marshall Mathers LP is also a less offensive and much better album than Relapse.)

My point in writing all this is not to nit-pick away Quin’s arguments about why Tyler’s lyrics and cool-kid status are problematic, I agree that they are. But I also think that it is extremely problematic to assert that 1-misogyny and homophobia are bigger problems than racism (at least in the music industry) and 2-Tyler gets away with metaphorical murder in large part because he is black. These assertions are not only problematic, they are not true. They serve to bolster systemic racism by hiding it, while at the same time pretending there’s some variation of “reverse racism” at play where there is none. I highly doubt this was Quin’s intention in writing the post, but inten is not the be all end all (I don’t necessarily think Tyler is consciously trying to perpetuate homophobia or promote rape, either.)

There is no need to do this in order to critique and fight against misogyny and homophobia. I am glad Quin has spoken out despite her fears. I sincerely hope that both she and those her piece spoke to and for will open up their analysis to make room for opposition to all forms of oppression, without privileging one over another or obscuring the actual power dynamics in play.

In Loving Memory of Poly Styrene

Poly (far right) performing with The X-Ray Spex

The X-Ray Spex not only expanded punk rock’s palette sonically, but stylistically and demographically. They presented a cogent, creative anti-Capitalist critique that was miles ahead of the adolescent anger of many of their peers, to say nothing of the intelligent radicalism of their race and gender politics. And they were fun. Poly was plenty pissed off, but she sure knew how to have a good time singing about what was fucked up in her world. The X-Ray Spex personified what I, as a highschooler, thought of as Real Punk Rock when such a phrase actually meant something to me. They were daring, rebellious, and spat in the face of convention, including punk rock convention. Poly was an ideal punk front person–bold and unique and passionate, with truth after truth she insisted on telling through The Spex’s series of indelible singles. She dressed as oddly as she pleased, as any good punk should, and her excellent style pushed the boundaries of punk’s commentary-through-fashion. Her plastic dresses and braces were a revelation. She virtually remade punk rock into the big umbrella of intelligent misfits its true believers like pretend it can be. According to my memory of what Poly’s said, The Spex ultimately disbanded because their post-Germ Free Adolescents sound refused to stagnate. They got musically weirder, and more experimental, and a chunk of their base turned on the band, heckling and pelting them at shows. I can’t for the life of me find the interview where she says this right now, and I don’t want to perpetuate a convenient myth of a narrative, but it’s sadly unsurprising if Poly and the Spex, ultimately were too challenging to the emerging genre they helped define.

I haven’t even talked about her voice. Poly’s vocals were both immense and relateably human. She could employ a ‘luded out sing-song, then turn on a dime and let loose an earthquaking bellow that shook you deliciously to your core. Large swaths of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna’s extremely effective vocal qualities and techniques are directly reminiscent of Poly’s pioneering style, a comparison Hanna herself acknowledges as legitimate. When I was in high school, I was able to take for granted that women could not only scream into a mic in front of loud guitars (and sax!), but fuck with their delivery in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Poly had an amazing voice, but the way she utilized it was revolutionary. Most of the riot grrrl and other feminist-ish punk/influenced singers I listened to in high school owed much to Poly’s brave and experimental approach (as they do to kindred spirit and rabble rouser Ari Up, who also recently died tragically young of cancer.)

This is probably my favorite X-Ray Spex song:

Today, all the songs on Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s classic 1978 album, feel both timely and timeless. The band still manages to sound ahead of the curve of what passes for punk music today, and the lyrics…well, the lyrics, despite being very much of their moment, hold up impeccably. “1977 and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Ah-pah-thy’s a draaaaaag!” Poly thrillingly railed on the chorus of “Plastic Bag”, and you could just as easily substitute 2011 to make the song work, if you had a singer with even half as much talent, charisma, and conviction. On the ironically subdued chorus, in between the narrator’s moments of white hot clarity, she muses “My mind is like a plastic bag/that corresponds to all those ads/it sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears/I ate Kleenex for breakfast/and used soft, hygenic Weetabix to dry my tears” and “My mind is like a switchboard/with crossed and tangled lines/contented with confusion/that is plugged into my head/ I don’t know what’s going on/It’s the operator’s job, not mine”

This resonates with me as much today as it did in the ’90s, when I wore out my CD copy of the blessedly, finally reissued album. The reissue had a different song order than the original, supposedly, and I’d often program my CD player to the original pressing’s sequence (I felt the album worked better with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” as a thrilling bonus track coda rather than up front, and generally enjoyed being a bit obsessive in my fandom of a band this awesome). The Sex Pistols were fun, at least when they weren’t whining about some lady having an abortion, but The X-Ray Spex were a real blast. They were not only entertaining as hell, but convinced me that older punk must have a lot to offer (the first time I heard the Pistols I was pretty underwhelmed–this angsty pop was what caused all that fuss?) leading me to some highlights of the golden age (loosely defined)–The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Slits, the stuff I still listen to today.

Poly Styrene
Why was there a painting of this iconic photo hanging in the Facebook office in The Social Network?

Sadly, Germ Free would be the Spex’s last album until (most of them) reunited in the ’90s for the disappointing (to me) Conscious Consumer. Poly released a difficult to find solo album called Translucence in 1980, and a couple other unrock-y works over the decades, but generally slipped off the musical radar. She found solace with a Hare Krishna temple for some time, until they, like the punk rock, proved too screwed up and stifling. According to an interview published just last month, she left over reports of pedophilia in the community, as well as her fatigue over pressure to get married. “I did get engaged once, but couldn’t go through with it. Some of them were misogynistic, too crazy,” she said. This interview was part of Poly’s tragically truncated promotion of her recently released solo album, Generation Indigo. I want to post this asap, so I’m not going to wait til I can include a proper reaction to the record, but you better believe it’s in my iTunes and I’ll be listening carefully.

This blog post could go on for days. Memories and anecdotes have been flooding my brain since I heard the terrible news earlier this week. The Spex remain one of my all time favorite bands to this day, and Germ Free Adolescents one of my absolute favorite albums. Poly Styrene is the #1 reason why. I’m so grateful for what she’s given me, and hope those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of listening will do so, now.

Poly Styrene 1957-2011

Now Streaming on Netflix: Maid in Sweden

I guess I should put a Trigger Warning on this. This post will be about a 70’s sexploitation movie that has rape in it. A lot. So if that’s not what you want to read about today, or ever, skip this post.

Round about 2:15 am this morning, I found myself tiring of the Arrested Development marathon I’d instigated. I was unsleepy, and looking to prolong my Roku-induced comfy narcotic cocoon. This is how I came across Maid in Sweden, a 1971 “Romance” starring Playboy model and “Swedish sex bomb” Christina Lindberg that Netflix thought I might like. It looked hilariously dated and ridiculous. I was reminded of my misspent youth watching Troma and forgotten, heavily censored incoherencies of the ’70s on USA Up All Night. I missed Rhonda Shear.

Yes, perhaps Maid in Sweden was the perfect viewing choice for 2:15 am on a Saturday morning. Customer reviews had granted it an average of two stars. The secret to the doubling of the number of stars the film actually deserves is revealed right on the cover art:

Lindberg is very pretty. And, unlike many US productions not filmed in Sweden, she is as naked as promised through much of the film. Perhaps Maid in Sweden wouldn’t have been on Up All Night, actually. After cutting all the nudity, They’d be left with about 25 minutes of unbearable dance and ice skating montage sequences set to swingin’ sixties generarock. All the songs were by the same set of dudes you’ve never heard of, who weren’t even given the dignity of a one-off band name in the credits. Instead, there was a list of crappy songs and the explanation that they were “sung by [list of random dudes].” So I guess the instrumentation I’d heard was accomplished not by bass, guitar, drums, and occasional sitar, but human voices. This may be the single most amazing fact about Maid in Sweden, but I’m not sure. There’s some stiff competition (lol!)

Maid in Sweden concerns Inga, a naive teenage farm girl (really) played by Lindberg. Despite the title, she is at no point employed as a maid. She does, however, receive an invitation from her older sister, Greta, to visit Stockholm and stay at her groovy flat. Inga is very excited about this. She removes her shirt repeatedly in preparation for her arrival in the big city. The big city is fun times, but also confusing and scary for virginal Inga, as Greta Lives With Her Boyfriend. She also drinks, smokes pot, and Has Sex. Sometimes in view of Inga. I’m fine with the rest of it, but: EW. Come on, Greta, are you really going to invite your sister to travel all the way from your family farm just to traumatize her?

Well, yes. The film contains the minimal structural necessities of a coming-of-age flick, but is primarily a series of old school, soft core sex (and rape, more on that later!) scenes, interspersed with dreary montages and occasional stilted, superfluous dialogue. I probably should have muted it, the thing might have been more effective as a silent film. I found myself just resenting the oft- incomprehensible line readings of horrible dialogue. Not funny-horrible, boring horrible. The trailer gives you a pretty good sense of exactly what you’re in for:

Wait, I lied. The bad dialogue looks disproportionately amusing in the trailer.

But about the soft core scenes, which battle it out with Lindberg’s breasts themselves to be the film’s essential raison d’etre: does stuff like this even exist any more? Fairly graphic, full frontal (ladies only, all you see of the dudes is their butts. Which is fine, cuz these dudes are gross) sex scenes that contain no creativity or penetration, but otherwise are just flat-out porn. The film was almost charming in it’s anachronistic cliches, and its visible pubic hair, and far out “Sex is fun! Smoke pot! None of this makes any sense!” message.

Then it got all rapey.

Greta’s live in boyfriend is the immediately repellent Carsten. He was the creepy blond dude in the trailer, trying to get Inga to smoke pot because it’s “relaxing”. He is played by Krister Ekman. Greta is played by Monica Ekman. This raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions that I don’t wish to investigate. From the moment of her arrival, Carsten leers at Inga a lot, usually while “teasing” her in some mean spirited, borderline abusive manner. Inga gets gross glimpses into his sex life with her sister, and is I guess supposed to be both frightened and intrigued. It’s hard to tell, what with the lack of logic, writing, and acting. Needless to say, Inga’s psychology barely exists, let alone makes any sense. She begins having sexy rape nightmares, and thus discovers masturbation, which could be…fine. Sexploring rape fantasies in soft core could be okay, but this shit makes no sense. It has nothing to do with any human-like, real or fictional teenage girl’s fears and desires. It does have a lot to do with the targeted viewers’ desires to imagine raping attractive teenage girls, or watch others doing the same. This scene bugged me because we’re supposed to be seeing Inga’s fucking subconscious, but it has nothing to do with her as a subject. Neat trick, that. Comparatively speaking, though, I was actually not that horrified by the exploitative, poorly shot and edited nightmare/wet dream sequence, even with its nauseating kalidescope f/x and equations of drinking beer with inevitable attempted gang rape and forced lesbianism (really). That was, comparatively speaking, ok. At least it was somewhat novel.

What really creeped me out was when Inga is then actually, repeatedly raped. First by some D-bag friend of Carsten’s, with whom Carsten and Greta semi-explicably send her off into a date-rape trap. And after he rapes her, they start dating! Then the awfully edited young-love montages start up. So many minutes of decent grade film were lost to Inga and the rapist strolling around the countryside, making moon-eyes at one another, all set to that same interminable non-band’s ear-rotting abominations. I still have this one recurring theme (Inga’s?) stuck in my head. Not cuz it’s such a catchy ear worm, just because it was repeated so. Many. Times. I mean, I assume that’s the soundtrack to romantic montages, I fast forwarded. Inga and the rapist also have poorly shot (but seemingly consensual) sex a lot.

Eventually pervy Carsten ends up home alone with Inga, and gets the opportunity to spy on her taking an extra-foamy, slow-motion shower. As you might expect, he eventually bursts in and rapes her. Greta comes home and catches them in the act (in which, at this point, Inga has apparently become an enthusiastic participant, natch.) Greta is sad and Inga goes home, no longer a girl, not yet a woman. Actually, by this film’s logic, I guess she is a woman.

As Whoopi Goldberg might say, of course none of this is “rape-rape”! Partway through each assault, Inga suddenly stops fighting and yelling “No! Stop!”, and starts groping some skeezy Swedish dudes ass while appearing to enjoy herself. The film equates rape with sex, there is just no distinction. I mean, these rapists aren’t even “troubled” or naughty (well, Carsten is, but he was cheating on his gf by raping her sister!) they’re just doing what needs to be done for everyone to loosen up and have a good time. Inga’s initial rape is portrayed not only as not-terrible, but as the greatest thing that’s ever happened in her life. It’s her big sexual awakening, and this isn’t The Story of O here, folks, this is a good old, all-American, Swedish sexploitation romp. Rape was just the necessary way for any two people to have sex for the first time back in the 70’s, at least in Sweden, did you know? Historic, geographical sex fact! It always ended up being a great time for everyone, so no harm, no foul. It’s not even sexist, cuz ladies can be rapists, too! [see: rape nightmare/wet dream sequence]. But they can only assault other ladies, of course. Men can’t be sexually violated, silly!

The message is basically a patriarchal twist on “all sex is rape” + rapists know best. It is, to put it mildly, an abominable message.

Fantasy themes of rape in porn, soft core or otherwise, are theoretically fine in and of themselves. But this shit was gross in its pandering to, reinforcing, and celebrating of horrible hegemonic myths of women’s inherent lack of sexual agency. While feminist and other liberatory movements have made cultural inroads, clarifying the difference between sex and rape, a scary number of people still believe that ladies are all naturally submissive and actually want to be raped even, if they don’t realize and need to be raped-in to it. Lots of people, probably mostly dudes, fail to understand that while plenty of people of all genders can ethically and healthfully enjoy role play or fantasy involving “rape”, actual rape is actually, always, completely wrong and horrifically damaging. It continues to confuse and fascinate me that an adult human being could not comprehend that fantasizing about about rape or happily choosing to engage in submissive scenarios is kind of the opposite of being sexually assaulted. If you have fantasies, they are your fantasies, if you choose to be submissive, you’re (hopefully) making a choice based on your own desires. That’s empowering. Actual rape takes away your choice, is actively opposed to your desires, and is, by definition, always, a violent and violating act. I can’t believe I just had to type that out. But this is what its come to with Maid in Sweden.

At least there are more and louder voices in the mainstream explaining what should be obvious truths than there were in 1971. I wonder how this film was received in its time. The whole sex/rape/fantasy/reality confusion thing was such a disaster then. I mean, at least now you might have to go to a frat house to hear the kind of blatant “Yay-rape, it’s not so bad, why not just try to enjoy it?” talk that used to be all the rage amongst supposedly leftist, activisty dudes [perhaps I should do a future “Now Streaming on Netflix” about Fritz the Cat, I’ll have to check if its still streaming]. To hear that shit now you have to go all the way to…Whoopi Goldberg on The View. IDK, you guys, maybe I’m off, but making “tasteful” (yes, my internet research has, mortifyingly, turned up usage of that adjective in reference to this rapeathon) soft core rape-porn in 1971 seems even scarier than if there was something like this on cable today. Maybe just because its so dated and corny that it’s hard to imagine creepy guys looking at it as an instruction manual (they have actual, modern, un-kitchy manuals now. God, I’m depressing myself.) But at least now, some of Maid in Sweden‘s fans point out that one should not take the rape-turns-to-fun message seriously, or as anything other than a fantasy. Well, one person said something like that. Perhaps more typical was the position this IMDB reviewer/Maid in Sweden fan took:

Inga gets exposed to sexual pleasure during a rape scene, which I’m sure many will object to. She’s being raped but half way through she realizes that sex is something good and I’m sure some might see this as sexist or even worse but I don’t think any deep messages where trying to be send with the scene

Now that we’ve got that clarified, let me treat you to a non sequitur: though IMDB has no record of this, I recall seeing a credit given in the opening sequence to “Mike Hunt”. Also, as IMBD has archived, director Dan Wolman chose the nom de filme “Floch Johnson” for this project.

Despite the fact that Lindberg doesn’t really do much acting in this, she has a nice screen presence and photographs amazingly in the parts where the camera was operated properly. It is true that she is very hot. I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to look at her boobs. There are worse things to build a movie around than giving viewers the opportunity to do this. BUT: said movie didn’t have to be as wretched, creepy, and hateful as Maid in Sweden. It’s a fucked up movie. I watched it so you don’t have to.

If I’ve somehow stoked your curiousity, be prepared to employ your >> button. It’s boringer than I’ve probably made it sound.